The Prisoner of Vandam Street
    by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69)
    Simon & Schuster
    March 2004
    240 pages

    Reviewed by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87)

    KINKY FRIEDMAN, AUTHOR OF The Prisoner of Vandam Street, is just your average RPCV: a Texas Jew with a New York attitude, provocative name and a past incarnation as a country-western singer. (Who could forget his hit, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”?) His popularity, outrageous humor and irreverence shine through in the bumper stickers that herald his gubernatorial run, stating, “He Ain’t Kinky, He’s My Governor.” Now he’s back on the shelves with the 16th book of his eponymous mystery series.
         Recovering — or not — from a bout of malaria (“plasmodium falciparum— the only truly deadly strain”), the same-named Kinky, coincidentally an RPCV and former country-western singer, convalesces at home under the care of his colorful friends, the Village Irregulars. Fevered, babbling and fading in and out of a lucid state, Kinky sees the anxious expressions on his friends’ faces, confirming his suspicions that this time, he’s “hanging by spit directly above the trapdoor.”
         One of the more fascinating aspects of malaria, Kinky muses between hallucinations, is that “you never know if something that has just happened is really something that has just happened.” The reader, therefore, doesn’t know what to think when Kinky, an amateur detective, glances through opera glasses out the window (à la Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”) and witnesses a man mercilessly beating a woman in a third-floor unit across the street. Horrified and helpless, not to mention still feverish, Kinky staggers to the phone and calls 911. The dispatched police search the building, and return to inform Kinky and his friends that the third floor is an unoccupied warehouse. The Village Irregulars shake their heads, regard Kinky with pity and tell him to go back to bed.
         But Kinky is determined to find and help the young woman he knows he saw. When Kent Perkins, his private investigator friend calls, Kinky enlists his aid. Upon his arrival, Kent sets to work, assisted by the Village Irregulars and the internet. This is not Kinky’s favorite form of sleuthing: feverish and bed-ridden, relying on the support of others. Worse, the malaria continues to act against Kinky and play with his mind. He sees the woman again — or does he? She needs his help — or does she? “Malaria,” an acquaintance once told him during his Peace Corps days in Borneo, “is the only way one can see the world as it really is.”
         And indeed, Kinky reaches this somber conclusion as well, realizing, “it was not possible to save anybody in this life, not even myself. All you could ever hope to do was to lead people to the light, which you couldn’t even really see yourself. The malaria helped me in a way. I could watch myself walking on this lost highway of life. I could see that there was no light to see.”
         Hard-core crime fiction fans will need to look elsewhere for nonstop action, jaw-dropping plot developments and hourly chase scenes. That’s not a Kinky trademark. Scatological humor, bawdy references, lots of alcohol and cigars — now we’re talking “the Kinkster,” and it’s what his cult readership expects and wants. The Prisoner of Vandam Street, however, is more brooding and pensive than his other books. Action plays second to introspection. Some of Kinky’s loyal readers might thumb through the pages and wonder, like the Village Irregulars, if the old Kinkster has really gone off the edge this time, and is it something permanent or will he be back to his more cheerful high jinks a year from now? But the book’s power lies in its subtlety, its Zen-like musings about departed loved ones, sanity, and pets who stand (well . . . crouch) beside you.
         I loved the book, finding its darker nature highly appropriate for these troubled political times we live in today. I could fully appreciate the character’s dilemma of helplessly watching violence and gun-brandishing from a distance, knowing that any protests or shouts of warning will go unheard. But as Kinky would say, “That, gentile reader, is life, so get over it.”
         I’ll resist the temptation to employ the usual har-har clichés about getting Kinky and reading Kinky and “some good Kinky stuff out there,” but I will go so far as to say, if you’ve never gotten Kinky before, now’s the perfect time. Even, or particularly if you’re not a mystery reader. But don’t read it for the thriller/adventure/crime fiction fix. Read it because it’s got a lot to say — about humanity, friendship, Guinness and cat feces. In this game we call life, that just about sums it up.

    Terez Rose’s writing has appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Writers Journal. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food (Seal Press, November 2003) and the upcoming A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, June 2004). She has recently completed her first novel.